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Risk of carbon monoxide release during the storage of wood pellets

Health and Safety Executive - Safety Notice
Department Name: Operational Strategy Division - Manufacturing Sector (General Manufacturing Team)
Bulletin No: OPSTD 3-2012
Issue Date: 5 November 2012
Target Audience:
  1. Users/installers/maintainers/distributors of wood pellet boilers
  2. Manufacturers/storers/distributors of wood pellets
Key Issues: Storage of wood pellets: Risk of death from carbon monoxide

Introduction:

The HSE is issuing this notice to those who use, install, maintain or distribute wood pellet boilers or manufacture/store/distribute wood pellets. Since 2002 there have been at least nine fatalities in Europe caused by carbon monoxide poisoning following entry into wood pellet storage areas. Although there have not been any incidents so far in the UK the use of wood pellets is increasing and awareness of this danger is required. Wood pellet boilers are used in homes and businesses as an alternative to oil or gas fired boilers. They are also being installed to replace coal-fired boilers, particularly in schools.

Carbon monoxide can kill quickly without warning. It is a colourless, odourless and tasteless gas that is highly toxic. When carbon monoxide enters the body, it prevents the blood from bringing oxygen to cells, tissues, and organs.

Background:

Wood pellets are made from dried and milled sawdust and wood shavings that have been compressed into pellets, typically 10-20mm long and 3-12mm in diameter. They do not typically contain any additives or binders.

They are classed as a biofuel, a non-fossil heating fuel. The main countries of manufacture are Canada, North America and the Scandinavian countries within Europe. In 2000, the annual production of wood pellets in Europe and North America was about 1.5 million tons. This was expected to increase to around 16 million tons by 20111. Some wood pellet manufacture is now taking place in the UK.

Fatality details:

Fatalities caused by the release of carbon monoxide from wood pellets have previously been reported2 in Europe following personnel entering ships cargo holds (four) or storage silos (two).

Since 2010 there have also been three deaths caused by entry into wood pellet storage facilities in domestic sites3. Two were associated with a work activity and the other was a householder. In each case, the entry had been to resolve a technical problem. Details:

Factors affecting the amount of carbon monoxide released from wood pellets

Wood pellets for boilers are normally stored in a large sealed hopper/tank or a storage room that has a screw feeder (auger) connected to the boiler. Alternatively, the hopper/tank can be mounted over the boiler for gravity feeding. Due to the enclosed nature of these hoppers/tanks/rooms, the atmosphere inside can become oxygen depleted and a toxic atmosphere containing carbon monoxide can accumulate. The chemical reactions responsible for carbon monoxide production from wood pellets are assumed to be an auto-oxidation process, especially oxidation of the fatty acids to be found in wood4.

Experimentation has shown3 that small quantities of wood pellets can produce life-threatening quantities of carbon monoxide in a confined space and that there are various factors that will affect the amount of carbon monoxide produced:

Note: In addition to the risk of carbon monoxide from wood pellets there is also a possibility of carbon monoxide being present because of a back-flow of flue gases via the fuel supply mechanism from the boiler. Causes for this include inadequate equipment being installed or a poorly designed flue.

Action required:

The HSE is advising all those who use, install, maintain or distribute wood pellet boilers and/or manufacture/store/distribute wood pellets to consider the following:

References:

  1. Information taken from Wood Markets Monthly International Report Volume 16, Number 10, December 2011 - January 2012
  2. Wood Pellet Association of Canada - Review of Off-gassing from Wood Pellets - A Canadian Perspective - Staffan Melin, Research Director, February 2010
  3. Saskia Gauthier, Hildegard Gras et al (2012) Lethal Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in Wood Pellet Storerooms - Two Cases and a Review of the Literature. Annals of Occupational Hygiene, Vol. 56, No. 7, pp. 755-763, 567755-763
  4. Kuang X, Shankar TJ, Bi XT et al. (2008) Characterization and kinetics study of off-gas emissions from stored wood pellets. Annals of Occupational Hygiene; 52: 675-83.
  5. HSE's Code of Practice for Working in Confined Spaces
  6. Silo Fires Require Specific Response Tactics - Henry Persson, Project Leader, Fire Dynamics section SP Swedish Technical Research Institute, October 2011

Further information:

General note:

Please pass on this information to anyone to whom it may be relevant.

2013-10-02